The last Christmas with my grandmother

My grandmother celebrated her last Christmas a year ago. As is our tradition, the entire extended family came together for the feast. The venue was her homestead, in our village near the shores of Lake Victoria, in the west of Kenya.

Her daughters-in-law commandeered her kitchen and her sons, after running a series of errands at their command, took to the shade under her trees. She used to spend most of the time sitting on a folding chair in her front yard. Or ambling about, slightly bent over, leaning on her walking stick, her worn shoes softly scraping the grass.

Most of her grandchildren were there. She knew them, and could tell them apart from other children, but she couldn’t remember any of their names. On the other hand, she knew the names of her own children and their spouses, but couldn’t say which name belonged to which of them.

You see, as of the last time I mentioned her on the festive pages of Mercator, just before the Christmas of 2019, dementia was already gnawing at the roots of her thoughts and memories. By last Christmas, she had lost nearly all of them. Only the very deepest had yet to slip her grasp.

The deepest of these was her faith. The little woman wouldn’t consume anything, not even a glass of water, without saying grace, complete with two very deliberate signs of the cross. And whenever anybody did her a favour, say, by giving her that glass of water, she would express her gratitude by singing.

Her repertoire consisted almost exclusively of three old Dholuo Catholic songs, each of which spoke of Christ’s impending return. None of them is apocalyptic; instead, they urge an unfazed resilience in faith, founded on hope and trust in Christ’s promise to come back to the world to take his own.

She sang these songs over and over last Christmas, because she received many favours from everyone there. Every now and then, she would peer into the face of one of her grandchildren and break into song; she must have thought their very presence in her home was a most sublime favour from God.

One might say her songs were the soundtrack to our celebration, her cheerful gapped-tooth smile its backdrop. And a grand feast we made of it, with an endless crackle of joyful laughter and stomachs full to capacity. None of us could have known then that that was her last Christmas with us. The fall and infection that would trigger her demise were still months away.

In the months since we buried her, I have found myself thinking quite often of her singing. Here was a woman whose memories had all but evaporated; whose bearing had, as it were, reverted to an innocent childlike state; but who nevertheless retained the presence of mind to give thanks to her Lord for any good she met, by reminding herself, and those around her, of his coming. How easily these songs came to her!



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Now, as our first Christmas without her approaches, I am filled with gratitude for the many times that we celebrated the feast with her and, above all, for her faith, which was a key reason for Christmas being important to us in the first place. She was only the second Christian in her family line, but she held onto the faith with a firm hand, and passed it on, unsoiled, to us.

Though my heart may not spring as readily into song as hers did (probably because my faith isn’t nearly as strong as hers was), I hope that, one day, my lips too will be moved by an act of kindness to intone, as she so often did, “Erokamano jayalo, Yesu chiegni duogo!” Thank you, preacher; Jesus is about to return!

In the meantime, I am slowly making peace with the fact that the loss of loved ones is also an essential part of the celebration of Christmas. Each one of us will one day celebrate it for the last time here on earth; and it will be up to those we leave behind to carry on, keeping faith in the born redeemer while maintaining and enriching the traditions with which we celebrate his birth.

This is what those who came before us did, my grandmother among them. Now it is our turn to sing with the angels, who joyfully burst out of heaven to break the news of a baby’s birth to a group of lowly shepherds, then gathered on a nondescript hillside in the Roman Empire’s impoverished eastern reaches.

Nearly two millennia later, and thousands of miles away, that baby stole my grandmother’s heart. And this year, he took her to be with him heaven. Now her celebration of Christmas will never end.

And we, gathered around that baby once more, will celebrate with her.

Merry Christmas everyone! 

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: sunset on Lake Victoria, near Kisumu, Kenya / Ross Pollack on flickr 


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  • mrscracker
    This is a lovely article. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of your grandma. May she rest in peace. Amen.